The Brookings Institution recently released a new book, Confronting Suburban Poverty, chronicling the increase in poverty beyond the urban core, which has gone largely unnoticed by policymakers. The book reveals that poverty has been growing faster in the suburbs than in cities or rural areas: Nearly 16.4 million poor people now reside in suburban communities, compared to 13.4 million poor people in big cities and 7.3 million poor people in rural areas.
This finding is significant, as poor suburban residents face a unique set of challenges that our community-development systems are not designed to address, including limited public-transit options, a largely dispersed population, and fewer nonprofit service providers, to name a few. The book is already serving as an important message in the fight against poverty, calling for a renewed look at our community-development system, and it reveals the need for new strategies to address a problem that is not contained by city limits.
While the authors call for a balanced approach to addressing suburban and urban poverty, many of the headlines responding to the trend discuss the “suburbanization” of poverty or declare that poverty is “moving from the city to the suburbs,” as though poverty is no longer an urban problem. In fact, the opposite is true: A larger share of the population in cities—20.9 percent—is poor compared to the population in suburbs—11.4 percent. While suburban poverty presents a unique set of challenges, we have yet to win the war on urban poverty, and several challenges persist for poor city residents, including concentrated poverty, crime, affordable-housing shortages, a lack of investment in good public-transit systems, job loss, and segregation.
While it is easier to target densely populated, poor urban areas for solutions, concentrated poverty is not an advantage for the poor living in cities. Studies consistently show that concentrated poverty exacerbates the challenges of being poor, as residents face higher crime rates, underperforming schools, poor health outcomes, and substandard housing options. The effects are particularly hard on children, who face increased levels of stress that can lead to emotional and behavioral problems. According to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, two-thirds of children living in concentrated poverty reside in cities.
As stated above, crime is a problem that particularly affects people living in concentrated poverty, which is more frequent in urban settings than in rural or suburban areas. While the crime rate in American cities has on average been declining, it is markedly higher than in suburban areas, which continue to be ranked among the safest places to live.
One contributing factor to the increase in suburban poverty is the lack of quality affordable-housing options in urban areas. Since the housing crisis, families are increasingly opting to rent instead of purchase their homes, driving up the demand in an already-strained rental market. Further, across the country, the number of extremely low-income renters exceeds the number of affordable units available.
The affordable-housing crisis is complicated by the fact that housing tends to be more expensive in areas with good public transportation. As a result, low-income people in cities tend to live in neighborhoods in which public transportation is underinvested and unreliable. Historically, many transportation planners and policymakers have dedicated resources toward constructing highways and commuter-rail lines serving suburban populations over low-income urban communities. This contributes to a higher so-called time penalty—the amount of time waiting for public transit—that low-income people face each year.
Transportation has become even more critical because every major metropolitan area has lost jobs to the suburbs over the past decade. According to another Brookings analysis, “the suburbanization of jobs obstructs transit’s ability to connect workers to opportunity and jobs to local labor pools.” This reveals how the economic futures of both the suburbs and urban areas are becoming increasingly linked.
While the 2010 Census showed that many black families moved to the suburbs over the past decade, this trend was mostly among affluent blacks, not those living in poverty. In fact, poor whites and Latinos are more suburbanized than poor blacks, who are still mainly concentrated in urban areas and may face barriers to pursuing suburban job opportunities. As Margery Turner of the Urban Institute stated, “Today’s poverty map reflects the legacy of discrimination, legally sanctioned segregation, and racial inequality.” She explains that as we develop place-based interventions to fight poverty, we must remember that urban poverty is still a problem and recognize this enduring legacy so we ensure that our policies acknowledge the links between race, poverty, and geography.
The authors of the Brookings analysis have it right: Poverty is a problem that is not limited by geography, but rather is impacted by it. As we reassess how to approach place-based responses to poverty, it is important to acknowledge not only that poverty is, in fact, a suburban problem, but also that the unique challenges of urban poverty persist. While the community-development system that was designed in the 1960s does not address the realities of suburban poverty, it is not currently working for the urban poor either. Changing demographics, advances in technology, and a globalized economy require us to rethink how we address poverty in our communities.
This crisis won’t be solved by one program, but instead requires a new way of working that breaks down silos and acknowledges the interconnected nature of issues. Efforts such as the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program, which coordinated resources from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency, do just that. By supporting multijurisdictional planning efforts to integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments, communities were challenged to work together by leveraging resources, aligning policy goals, and solving problems together.
As we continue to address poverty, we can’t turn our back on cities while searching for solutions to the next frontier of poverty. Cities are still the engines of the U.S. economy and have the potential to create opportunities for people throughout their regions. Policymakers must look beyond the headlines and take this analysis as a renewed call to address poverty in comprehensive ways across all jurisdictions.
Tracey Ross is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.